Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Brush Pile: Build it for our Wild Friends

A brush pile is an uncomplicated, no-cost structure.  It’s basically a large pile of sticks that offers habitat to all sorts of wildlife.  Squirrels climb and hide, chipmunks zip under and out and a whole host of birds routinely hop through the network of limbs that occupies our garden.  Oh, and yes, I need to mention the mice…  But before you decide a brush pile isn’t for you, consider that all carnivorous and omnivorous animals eat mice.  Coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, snakes and raccoons don’t think twice about snatching up a mouse for a meal.

Our trap camera captured this fox on the hunt. The brush pile provides sanctuary for potential fox food.

A trap camera photo of a hunting red fox. The brush pile provides sanctuary for potential fox food.

The components of our two small brush piles consist of fallen tree branches gathered on our property and found curbside around the neighborhood and include larger chain-sawed limbs.  We don’t have a large lot – it’s less than a ¼ of an acre – but reducing lawn has left us with more room to accommodate critters.  Building both habitats was quick and easy, and wearing architect as well as artist hats made the handiwork enjoyable. Constructing a brush pile to support our wild friends is definitely a fun and creative project for families to do together – and to enjoy for many years.

The Three S’s: Sanctuary, Shelter and Snacks

Why should you create a brush pile?  There are three elements a brush pile provides:

1. Sanctuary.  Brush piles create a sanctuary for our wildlife.  Birds, salamanders, snakes, turtles, small mammals (and more!) all need a helping hand, especially in our stripped-down suburban areas.  A properly built brush pile provides a place for our creatures to hide from their many predators.

2. Shelter.  In times of extreme weather a brush pile is the perfect shelter.  In winter it’s particularly vital for protecting our birds.  If your property is void of mature evergreen shrubs and trees that birds need for protective cover, evergreen foliage placed over a brush pile during the winter months will create a dry interior birds can safely roost in.

3. Snacks.  Many insect species are attracted to the decaying wood and will make it their home.  Insects found in brush piles are an additional source of protein-rich food for woodpeckers and other bug eating animals. Continue reading

Leaf Litter: Nature Knows What She’s Doing

Forest with lots of gorgeous, beneficial leaves.

A forest with lots of gorgeous, life-supporting leaves.

It’s that time of year already.  Autumn… or fall, if you prefer, a bittersweet season when summer heat retreats and leaves begin their graceful descent to the ground.  So it’s also time for me to cast a watchful eye on my neighbor down the street.

Every fall “Neighbor Joe” mulches his fallen leaves with a lawnmower.  He then piles the mulched leaves at the curb for the county’s Snuffaluffagus contraption to vacuum up and cart away.  As soon as I notice Joe’s heap of freshly chopped leaves I tip-toe over with my wheelbarrow and seize the gold (and brown and rust) treasure, and quietly steal away with it.  Sure, I’ve got leaves falling on my own property but I rescue Joe’s because his are perfectly prepped and primed for tossing into my garden.  One simply cannot have too many leaves.

Joe could, of course, let his mulch-mowed leaves remain on his lawn to slowly feed his expanse of turf, and reward his plant beds as well with a decent layer of the bounty.  But Joe is like almost everyone else in my neighborhood who rakes or blows their leaves to the curb.  They all want the outward appearance of a tidy yard.  If they were aware of the multiple benefits of leaf litter, might they instead decide to keep their leaves on their property?  Possibly.  Perhaps.

Ready for collection. The fate of our leaves many years ago.

Ready for collection. This was the fate of our leaves many years ago, before we understood their value.

Nature’s Original Intention

Leaves, twigs, logs and other plant material positively affects what’s above and below ground.  They’re an integral part of a complex food web.

Decaying leaves feed, protect, and insulate plant roots.  They provide food for essential decomposers like earthworms, bacteria and fungi — and decomposition naturally contributes to the creation of rich topsoil.  Leaf matter also makes life better for all kinds of animals like insects, amphibians, small mammals and birds.  I’ve often observed our sparrows and robins scratching through layers of leaves in search of tasty treats and eastern red-backed salamanders lounging under the moist leaves in early spring.

Leaf litter as shelter. I accidentally disturbed this giant leopard moth caterpillar early one spring.

Leaf litter as shelter. I accidentally disturbed this giant leopard moth caterpillar early one spring.

Doubly disheartening. Discarded leaves indignantly stuffed in plastic.

Doubly disheartening. Leaves discarded and stuffed in plastic.


Throughout all seasons leaves are the perfect provider of food and habitat for insects in various stages of their life cycles: insects such as butterflies, moths, bumblebees, beetles and leafhoppers.  And who wants to deny leaves to leafhoppers?

All these leaf-exploiting creatures are needed to feed higher links in the wildlife food chain.

Why Forest Trees Are Healthy

Perhaps the single most important reason to let nature do things her own way is to support the magnificent trees that shed those leaves.  Trees and turfgrass don’t play well together — the competition between the two is fierce.  The nutrient-absorbing roots of trees and grass occupy the same space and studies begun in the 1960s show that trees don’t grow well when their roots are covered over with lawn.  Those pristine lawns devour the nourishing food and moisture trees need to survive and thrive.  Leaf litter gives it back.  Applying a large area of decaying organic material (from all parts of a tree) is a must-do gardening task and more recently an American National Standards Institute recommendation for arborists.  How’s that for an endorsement of the dead stuff?

Want to see what happens when leaves are allowed to do what comes naturally?  Check out this timelapse video of our backyard one spring.

A few good reads offering more information on leaf litter: Leaf Litter is an Environmental Windfall

University of Florida: Leaf Litter: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Work?

National Wildlife Federation: What to do with Fallen Leaves

Many thanks to Miles Benson who helps edit my blogs and co-wrote this with me.

Update July 20, 2016

The Hummingbirds: A Poem

Every spring, Robert and Arlene anticipate the arrival of the ruby-throated hummingbirds to their mountain home.  They observe in awe as these tiny beings nest and feed and hover and swoop around their wooded land.  But with autumn closing in, the ruby-throats recently bid farewell to their Linden, Virginia, residence and have begun their long migration south.  This is a poem written by Robert and inspired by his and Arlene’s very favorite guests.

Coming in for a landing!

Coming in for a landing!

The Hummingbirds by Robert Foster
It’s amazing to me that they travel so far
Feisty and noisy and small that they are
Emerald and ruby just buzzing about
A pause and a sip with a curious shout
In spring when they come, so tired and wan
In fall when they leave it’s so quiet at dawn
Longing and left, the silence pervading
I’d smile once again at your raucous invading
I’m left here alone at the break of the day
No tweets of good morning to light up my way
Color and humming recede to the last
Departure your sign, that the summer has past
This time of year as the fall will descend
With a hitch in my throat, just to see you again
Saddened and hoping you’re safe on your flight
I pause with a sigh as I’m left without sight
Who would’ve thought such a small little bird
Would cause such a break when no longer it’s heard
Wishing and praying won’t lengthen your stay
But oh how I wish to have just one more day

The ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the most delightful visitors to our gardens.  They eat tiny insects and draw nectar from a variety of flowers — most of which are red and tubular.  In the Mid-Atlantic, some of the best native choices are eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma), trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) and jewelweed (Impatiens capensis).

Read more about our amazing hummingbirds on Audubon.

Reflections on Establishing a Native Plant Garden…

Beverley Rivera, a transplant from Australia and world traveler, reflects on her most recent journey: discovering our native plants.

Reflections on establishing a native plant garden…

As summer starts to fade, a sea of late-blooming goldenrods explode with sunny yellow, their honey-like fragrance enticing thousands of busy pollinators to my native plant garden. Swarms of purple asters and fizzy white boneset create a buzzing corridor of life. Goldfinches, which my neighbor lamented hadn’t been seen around here in years, are now back in residence; and I was recently rewarded for my gritty labor by our first hummingbird sighting, now a regular visitor to our garden. When I first ventured into planting native plants, I was told that natives would attract wildlife to my backyard, but I was also motivated by the theory that thoughtfully-planted gardens could be used to help offset some of the monumental environmental destruction that modern society is inflicting on our larger landscape. Now, as my garden’s first full summer winds up to a showy finale, I’m witnessing those theories coming to life. Continue reading